Mourning Markelov: The Fault, Dear Brutus, is Not in Our Stars

stanislav012609.jpgAs last week came to its prolonged close, punctuated by the singularly disheartening farewell to slain human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, one can’t help but be struck by the feeling that Russia had hit a new low point, and the even greater disappointment of knowing that we haven’t yet hit the bottom.  If you are anything like me, the repeated images from the funeral were a cause for a sudden reckoning:  internalizing the fact that this most brilliant young lawyer, with both the courage and unlimited energy that has become so rare in this world, has been taken away from us all.

Russia was a safer place when Markelov was still alive, because at the very least, his advocacy was ultimately emblematic of moral outrage – seemingly our last defense.  In his work was the affirmation that there was a right and there was a wrong, and when it came to the behavior of the state, no risk is too great if it manages to shine a light on conduct that is both criminal and viral in the nature of its impunity. 

Up until his final days, these beliefs and perspectives remained steadfast.  One reader has kindly forwarded me a link to translations of two of Markelov’s last articles, which are posted over on Chtodelat News.  There is also no shortage of frightening premonition in Markelov’s writings, much as there was in those of Politkovskaya.  In his piece Two Worlds, Two Deaths, Markelov writes about the funeral and commemoration of Patriarch Alexei, who unlike Stanislav, was treated to extensively lavish displays of mourning from government representatives.  However, so wrapped up was the Russian government and its state media, that everyone ignored the death of the teenager Greece killed by a policeman’s bullet, which ignited weeks of unrest and riots.  It is Markelov himself who speaks most intelligently on the outrageous apathy in the wake of his own death:

According to state doctrine, power is infallible and ringed with ahalo of absolute intrinsic value. Those who have attained the highestrank in the power system immediately become fathers of the nation andsaints by virtue of their status. We follow precisely the rules ofByzantium, where each new emperor automatically became a saint. Thisdoctrine cannot account for the fact that the death of an ordinaryteenager would become a national event, that five thousand people wouldcome to his funeral without being prompted by any advertisingwhatsoever or round-the-clock reports on TV. In Russia, personalinitiative must be sanctioned: it must have state support and becomprehensively covered in the mass media. Only then we do end up withthe “well-organized spontaneous outpouring of grief on the part ofevery Russian.”

Yes, it is true that neither Vladimir Putin nor Dmitry Medvedev nor anyone within their tandem administrations has said one word about the murder of Markelov, not to mention the journalist Anastasia Baburova.  Since when could the brutal and bloody daylight murder of two such people, especially such a reputable member of the human rights community, represent anything short of outright madness?  Have we become accustomed to this?  Implicitly, the President and Prime Minister are charged with the duty of guarding the constitution, and as such, there is some responsibility to be accounted for in this considerable violation.  But not even an acknowledgement, a laid wreath, or any sort of going-through-the-motions.  From their silence, the message is clear from the state – that this type of murder is approved and will not be punished, which if true would place Russia’s current leadership into a class of rulers of very few equals, present or past.

What is it about the new autocrats that gives them such fear ofopposition?  Is it that they recognize that their sole claim tolegitimacy is the price of a barrel of oil?  Is it that their power onlyappeals to the darkest side of man’s nature, his most venal and selfishinstincts, while men and women such as Markelov and Politkovskaya appeal to a completely different set of values, thus challenging the state?  Somewhere in here, one can detect the careful preservation of a false narrative.

This false narrative leads not to a discussion about Russia’s problems with human rights, but rather casts an accusatory finger outward in search of the Kremlin’s good friend, moral relativism.  But Russia is of course far from alone in so quickly casting the memory of Markelov asunder.  Left and right, we can see “urgent” calls for the United States and Europe to stop giving Russia so much grief over “values” (as though these are intangible dreams), and to seek their cooperation at whatever cost they deem appropriate.  When there are murders in the street, before the body is even cold we tend to hear so many voices already telling us to forget about it.

Consider this strange fact:  I first met Markelov through the urging of Anna Politkovskaya, who suggested that I sit down for lunch with him to hear about his discoveries of the pogroms of the filtration camps of Russia.  That lunch eventually developed into a valuable professional relationship, but before too long the state sent me packing from Russia.  How many other countries can a person name where a journalist introduces you to a lawyer, and then, two years later, they are both murdered by contract hits on the streets of Moscow?

Thequestion is not so much by whom – which in many respects is irrelevant considering the openly brazen climate of impunity in Russia.  The question is about how it is possible that a system has emerged which allows murders as a function of its own continuedexistence. 

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but inourselves, that we allow this farce of governance, which has martyred somany and hidden a wounded Russian spirit.

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  1. Adrian
    Posted January 26, 2009 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this piece, Robert. I am afraid you are right: Russia has far further yet to fall. The question only remains as to how brazen and brutal the executions and the xenophobia and the repressions will have to be before the West is stirred from its apathy regarding the true nature of Putin’s Russia.

  2. Posted January 26, 2009 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    At last! It seems it took the killing of Markelov to finally make you see the light and understand we are at war and your language needs to reflect that fact. We’ve been saying exactly this over on my blog for three years now. His sacrifice will not have been in vain if more people are illuminated in a similar way. Indeed, given the craven weakness we see around us, perhaps such sacrifices are the only way Russia can be saved.Pavel Felgenhauer of Novaya Gazeta has directly accused the KGB of orchestrating thsi murder. might want to translate and publish some of the pro-Kremlin rants rationalizing the killing, like this one for instance:

  3. Posted January 26, 2009 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a few suggestions for further improvement:(1) Chastise U.S. President Barack Obama for his disturbing silence on the killing as well as a host of other recent issues such as race murders.(2) Point your finger at the main party responsible here, the people of Russia. They are silent, and they brought Putin to power and continue to favor him with astronomically high approval ratings.(3) Call for specific actions by Western leaders and describe the consequences if they fail to act.

  4. penny
    Posted January 26, 2009 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    When funerals like Markelov’s and Politkovskaya’s are attended by tens of thousands instead of a hundred or two then Russians can be taken seriously as wanting a civil society. Putin has an 83% approval rating, after all.The best the west can do is to contain Russia and make the Putin’s petro-profits as hard to come by as possible. It’s futile to think that as an external force the west can impose a civil society on Russians. They either collectively want that and are willing to take the risks to obtain it or they don’t. So far, the answer has been their hubris, deafening silence and majority approval as Putin has dismantled their freedoms.

  5. Sam
    Posted January 26, 2009 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    Villifying the Russian people for apathy or supinity is not helpful – in fact, very harmful. Such a divisive approach only drives them into the gleeful arms of Putin.We have to understand WHY Russians support Putin, from actively to at least passively or resignedly.One major reason for this is, in my humble opinion, is that love of Putin is motivated, partly but significantly by fear of the all-enveloping monolith of Western Capitalism sweeping away Russian culture.Their conscious fear, as promoted and groomed by Putinocracy, is, admittedly ridiculous. The upper class of Russia has shown remarkable aptitude for consumerism – they have embraced “Western Capitalism” readily. And the lower classes’ scoffing can be equally dismissed as the delusions of the proud; would they like to buy from these lavish shops that have sprung up in Moscow, would they hell!However, their subconscious fears have validity- not the alarmist stuff about shops and McDonalds and largesse (which, turns out, they actually like). Rather, the threat of cultural Chernobyl, blowing apart and homogenising through the growling perturbations of giant faceless, soulless, amoral corporations that dominate human existence in the West.Forget their proud and hypocritical slights on the West. My belief is that Russia has a subconscious and valid philosophical problem with accepting capitalism. If someone could come along with a sustainable but less morally corrupt system, Russians would automatically ditch Putin.Unfortunately, that pink elephant stills roams free and unseen.

  6. Posted January 26, 2009 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    “the threat of cultural Chernobyl, blowing apart and homogenising through the growling perturbations of giant faceless, soulless, amoral corporations that dominate human existence in the West”Sounds a lot like Stalin! How much Russian culture did he liquidate as Russians stood mute or helped him?Many thought if only we could “understand Hitler’s valid concerns and fears” then he would calm down. It didn’t work out. Only uneqivocal brute force solved that problem. What you are suggesting is that we go on for years sacrificing hundreds or thousands or millions of lives like Markelov’s while we seek to coax Russia into reasonableness. What you overlook is that Russians don’t have those lives to spare (to say nothing of basic concept of morality).Patronizing Russians will never produce any results other than more of the same.Perhaps B.A. would like to translate some of this nonsense from the Russian press folks will understand the true horror of Russian “thinking” about Markelov. By standing mute or even attacking Markelov, Russians are complicit in his killing as much as their regime. If we can’t show them the basic respect of holding them to same standard we hold ourselves, we should not be surprised if they fail to reform.

  7. Posted January 26, 2009 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    I too applaud this post, which could easily have appeared on my own blog at any time over the past three years. It’s sad, though, that it has taken this brutal murder to finally wake you up to the fact that we are at war with a monstrosity that will destroy us unless we fight back.Perhaps Mr. Markelov gave his life for a salutary purpose if it will move others as well to a new insight on the nature of neo-Soviet Russia. Obviously, the falling of Politkovskaya was not sufficient to achieve this. I hope this blog will not soon forget this inident and return to the “moderate” ways that only encourage more brutal murders of heroic Russians.

  8. penny
    Posted January 27, 2009 at 1:25 am | Permalink

    Sam, I think Russians can handle ouside criticism, they aren’t children, if it drives them into the hands of Putin then there is no hope for them as a culture they are beyond repair. They certainly are masters in doling criticism out to others.What you are describing are cement brained Sovoks that are impeding change, but, you’ve got to add in the hubris and willful ignorance of far too many that should know better that have sat on their butts as Putin rolled back their freedoms. It’s going to cost them lives now to reverse that if they ever do.Having nothing to contribute to capitalism other than the rents they extract as corrupt commodity purveyors they’ve got a problem. They are good capitalists in the sense that the Sopranos are whether it’s state or individual enterprises. Maybe it will occur to them that Putin left them high and dry when commodities crashed. Unfortunately they’ll probably pick another Putin wrapped in a different PR package.

  9. James
    Posted January 27, 2009 at 4:50 am | Permalink

    I would actually agree that vilifying the Russian people as a whole is a useless exercise, which only serves to bond the innocent with the ignorant (though I’m not sure about the rest of the comment).I think that’s also why Bob ended with the Cassius quote from Shakespeare to suggest the primacy of circumstance over fate … in other words, all those in the international community who have spent recent years in complacency with the state of human rights in Russia helped put a finger on the trigger of the gun that killed Markelov.